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Scholarly misconduct and the integrity crisis

Retractions in scholarly journals have reached record levels. Doctorates have been removed from politicians and others for plagiarism, there has been tasteless denigration of academic colleagues under cover of academic freedom, researchers have been jailed for fraud, and conflicts of interest involving private industry’s role at universities have generated notoriety. Sex for marks practices have been exposed.

However, whilst scandals within the research environment occur regularly, rarely are they viewed en masse to identify what lessons can be learned. Where possible, such matters are resolved collegiately and quietly, with apologies and resignations; thereby embarrassments are minimized. Protocols and codes of ethics are written and rewritten. Articles are withdrawn. Too often the legal system is manipulated to thwart effective investigations and the ultimate resolution of allegations degenerates into lengthy and bitter disputation. An example of this was the saga that enveloped Christopher Gillberg’s data destruction – litigation made its way interminably through the Swedish courts, and then even the European Court of Human Rights.

Miscreants are denounced by whistleblowers, and findings are made one way or the other, often legalistically and belatedly, by internal inquiries, ombudsmen, corruption investigations, external reviews, and courts on appeal. In the end scholarship self-corrects and research entitlements may be withdrawn for a time. Proven malefactors move away from their employing institution sometimes to resurface elsewhere or, like the psychologist Diederik Stapel, in autobiographies.

However, what has been occurring is more than a series of rotten apples in the scholarly barrel. It is a crisis for the culture of scholarship leading to an attenuation of the trust and respect which should be its hallmarks. And the misconduct has come at a very human cost for patients, fellow researchers, and supervisors, as well as to the detriment of trajectories of research, institutions, and funders.

The case of Haruko Obokata is illustrative. Dr Obokata was a medical scientist at a lucratively government-funded Japanese research institution. She claimed to have made a breakthrough in stem cell research and became a household name in her country. Her scholarship was published in Nature. Research funds poured in. Her lifestyle became more akin to that of a rock star. However, doubts grew about the reliability of her work – others were unable to replicate her results. Ultimately a tragedy played out in the glare of the media and the shadow of potential criminal prosecution. It emerged that her research was false and that her doctorate was flawed; after an inquiry it was withdrawn. Major articles were retracted. Her supervisor committed suicide. Research funds for her institution were slashed and in 2015 she was obliged to leave her employment, disgraced, and discredited.

As there are many forms of unethical conduct in research, conflicts of interest in the scholarly environment can take diverse forms. One is researchers persisting in trials in spite of the risk of adverse consequences. An instance of this occurred when the New Zealand National Women’s Hospital continued trials involving women with a diagnosed cervical cancer precursor without providing treatment when this was the acknowledged proper clinical response. A report by Judge Cartwright castigated the ethics of the research project.

what has been occurring is more than a series of rotten apples in the scholarly barrel.

At the Institute for Human Gene Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania researchers conducted a gene therapy trial, involving Jesse Gelsinger, but failed to make a range of disclosures to participants. After Gelsinger’s death, the University agreed to pay substantial fines and preclusions were placed on a number of researchers’ clinical research entitlements in relation to human subjects.

The issue again came to prominence when one man died and four others fell seriously ill during a French drug safety study in early 2016. A trial volunteer started to complain of headaches and blurry vision. He was taken to hospital but the trial was continued with others becoming ill during the day before the volunteer died, rather than informing the remaining participants and enabling them to decide whether they wished to continue. This was in spite of a consent form that promised: “You will be informed about any new significant information that could affect your willingness to continue the trial.” A preliminary report published in January 2016 by the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales was highly critical of defects in the process.

The difficulty is that instances of research fraud and conflict of interest continue to occur in spite of even the criminal law entering the domain. In 2015, for example, Dr Dong-Pyou Han, a member of an Iowa State University team which received over $US19 million in government funding for HIV research, was sentenced to 57 months’ imprisonment after his published research outcomes were shown to have been based on outright fabrication.

Such examples, together with scandals in which academics have engaged in sexualised relationships with postgraduate students, including Professors Ezio Camerino in Italy and Colin McGinn in the United States, highlight the need for clear scholarly protocols to clarify obligations, entitlements and expectations. Whether it is necessary to go as far as some United States zero tolerance policies on staff-student sexual relationships, or a proscription upon sexual harassment and conflicts of interest suffices, remains a controversial issue.

Important steps are required in order to regain trust in the integrity of the scholarly environment, as well as in the fruits of scholarship. They need to include appropriate and consistent protocols and standards, as well as the imposition of robust deterrent penalties. There need to be fair, prompt, and rigorous investigative and adjudicative procedures. This is an area in which the law and improved models of investigation and decision-making have a role to play. Whistleblowers must be valued and protected through actions, not just words, but the innocent must also be safeguarded. The culture of contemporary scholarship has to be reframed so that importance is reasserted in the originality of findings, both positive and negative, transparency of data, and so that incentives for publishing methodologically flawed and superficial work are removed. This has repercussions for criteria for academic advancement, for journals’ editors and publishers, and for scholarly endeavours generally, so that scholarly values and the checks and balances of ethics committees, supervision, and peer reviewing can be harnessed more effectively.

Featured image credit: I tend to scribble a lot, by Nic McPhee. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Ellis

    Bizarrely, some people choose to believe, against all subsequent evidence, the original flawed research findings. As a result of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s article on a possible link between immunizations and autism, society has suffered huge financial and health costs. As far as I know, the justice system has not been involved in this case.

  2. Ian Freckelton QC

    I take your point, Margaret. However, there are many different forms of legal involvement – more than just civil actions for damages or the preferring of criminal charges. Dr Wakefield’s registration was cancelled by the GMC, after adverse findings about his professional conduct. That led to the devastating observation by Mitting J in Walker-Smith v General Medical Council [2012] EWHC 503 (Admin) at [7] that: “There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports [Dr. Wakefield’s] hypothesis, that MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked.” The outcome of the lengthy GMC proceedings therefore has impacted in a major way upon both his professional reputation and his ability to practise medicine, not to mention the status of his views

  3. […] “[W]hat has been occurring is more than a series of rotten apples in the scholarly barrel,” writes Ian Freckleton. “It is a crisis for the culture of scholarship leading to an attenuation of the trust and respect which shoul….” […]

  4. Patricia Molloy

    This is so important. It is vital that we analyse what is going wrong and the mechanisms that are available to fix the problems. All our reputations, and the reputations of our colleagues are at stake. Well done

  5. Ian Freckelton QC

    For the first time a scholar was sentenced to imprisonment for research fraud in Australia in April 2016. Professor Bruce Murdoch was sentenced to a two year suspended jail sentence in Brisbane, Queensland, after pleading guilty to 17 charges of fraud, a number of them arising from an article which he published in the European Journal of Neurology which asserted a breakthrough in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Magistrate Privitera found that Murdoch forged consent forms for study participants and that his research was “such as to give false hope to Parkinson’s researchers and patients”. She found that there was no evidence at all that Murdoch had conducted the clinical trial on which his purported findings were based.

    Murdoch’s plea of guilty and evidence that he was suffering from depression and dealing with a cancer diagnosis were factors that resulted in a sentence of jail time that was suspended. This is by contrast with a series of other researchers such as Scott Reuben and Dong Pyou-Han who have latterly received significant periods of imprisonment after having been found to have falsified their research. The cases raise the difficult question of how the legal system should deal with cases of proven intellectual dishonesty in the research domain. One of many issues is whether the criminal law is the best mechanism for deterring scholars from engaging in this form of misconduct.

  6. Geoff Kirwood

    Just the one death during the PhI/II drug trial? fnmyalgia.com/2014/09 describes thousands of lives risked, and dozens killed. Prof Rory Wolfe uses it as instructional in burying bodies under biostats (Advanced) – I asked whether we should tell an authority. “Happens all the time”.

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